Grim Commonsense: advice from FOR WRITERS ONLY

All my life I wanted to write—to be a writer, to have my work read by others and enjoyed, or even change their lives! And in my dreams I imagined them being read long after I was dead — in a kind of immortality.

Now, decades later, I can say that I’m a successful writer, with three New York Times bestsellers and my work translated into some 25 languages, and I know my books will be trashed  and thrown away probably before another fifty years have passed – and there’s something Right in that, and Just.

Here’s what I’ve learnt.  It’s not the selling but the work that brings you happiness. I tell this to my students. (Besides, you never know who will discover your book after you’ve died. Like Steven Crane. Like Herman Melville. Like Jane Austen and scores of others.)…

I remembering writing my first cover story for a major New York publication I wrote it mostly for money but also to learn the craft. I remember walking out into the park with a copy of the magazine in my hands, my heart breaking.

“I worked on this for six weeks,” I thought, “and it’s ashes, ashes in my mouth.”  Why did success (publication) feel so false?

Years passed. I wrote successful books. In our culture that means they “sold.”  And then I hit a long, dry patch. Every writer knows those despairing times.

I didn’t want to write what publishers would pay me to write, and they didn’t want to publish what I wanted to write.  In a frenzy of creativity, I wrote six books in eight years—and I couldn’t get any of them published. At the end of eight years I woke up, thinking—“I’m a failure!”

Well, in the end they all came out, with timing better than I could have imagined, for they sat like trains in the station, ready to pull out, one by one, but only when the audience was prepared. (Patience, says the Muse. Just wait!)

Still, it’s hard to wait. Every artistic endeavor requires a triangle:  work, artist, audience. The artist needs another’s recognition. To have no audience for too long a time is . . .  degrading.

And yet to cast your fishing line ahead too soon courts failure. There is a time for Selling. But first you write. You must not think of selling and PR just yet.

One of the books written in this dark period, was FOR WRITERS ONLY.  It was written to remind me of what writing is about—discipline, determination, working even when you don’t feel like it, even when you don’t have anything to say, even when discouraged beyond imagining.

“The first four months of writing the book, my mental image is scratching with my hands through granite. My other image is pushing a train up the mountain, and it’s icy, and it’s in bare feet.”

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